Boston Red Sox: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff Race Pressure

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2017

Boston Red Sox: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff Race Pressure

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    Christian Vazquez and Craig Kimbrel have both played pivotal roles for the Boston Red Sox down the stretch.
    Christian Vazquez and Craig Kimbrel have both played pivotal roles for the Boston Red Sox down the stretch.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    One individual can't take credit for the Boston Red Sox's position atop the American League East.

    If only knowing they had hit 16 home runs in September, one might fear that their division lead would have vanished. After all, Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius have combined to hit 14 for the New York Yankees, who have won eight of their past 10 games.

    Yet the Red Sox still averaged 5.4 runs per game in September with help from a well-rounded offense and favorable schedule. And although Chris Sale has looked downright human at times, the pitching staff has steered clear of calamity.

    They have also experienced a heavy dosage of close calls, winning three of their past six games in extra innings. Call it clutch or pure luck, but Boston clinched a playoff spot with over a week of the regular season remaining. At worst, they can use Sale in the AL Wild Card Game.

    While Eduardo Nunez, Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi have cooled down from sizzling hot streaks, the superstars are now shouldering the load. Let's look at some of the team's biggest performers from the past few weeks.

C Christian Vazquez

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    Christian Vazquez has emerged as a second-half star in Boston's lineup.
    Christian Vazquez has emerged as a second-half star in Boston's lineup.Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Boston will hope the latest solution to its catching woes sticks.

    Blake Swihart emerged down the stretch in 2015. Two years later, he has received five plate appearances as a forgotten September call-up who batted .190/.246/.292 in Triple-A. 

    There was a time last year when nobody could get out Sandy Leon. His out-of-nowhere breakout did not carry into this season, during which he's batting .223/.291/.342.

    Next in line: Christian Vazquez. Following another uninspiring start, the 27-year-old has hit .333 in the second half and .310 (13-for-42) in September. By hitting three home runs in August, he matched his previous career total through two-and-a-half seasons.

    Vazquez, who made the majors because of his defense and a strong arm deteriorated by a 2015 Tommy John surgery, even went 2-for-4 as the designated hitter on Monday. Given his limited power, a .600 slugging percentage with two out and runners in scoring position, per Baseball Reference, stands out despite the small sample size.

    He will have to prove he's not the next hot hand doomed for regression, but the strong surge has boosted Boston's offense during the division race.

SP Drew Pomeranz

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    Drew Pomeranz has been Boston's best starting pitcher behind Chris Sale.
    Drew Pomeranz has been Boston's best starting pitcher behind Chris Sale.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Since the end of July, Sale has submitted a 4.02 ERA in 10 starts. Fellow southpaw Drew Pomeranz has helped the ace's few missteps sting less.

    The 28-year-old has posted a 2.45 ERA during the same time frame. He allowed a maximum of three runs in every start except Sept. 2's turn at Yankee Stadium, where he relinquished four runs in a 5-1 loss. Boston has won eight of his past nine starts.

    With David Price battling injuries and Rick Porcello leading all AL starters in hits allowed, Pomeranz has emerged as Boston's unexpected No. 2 starter, with a 3.15 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 165.1 innings. 

    Amid concerns of health that nearly voided a trade with the San Diego Padres, he worked a career-high 170.2 innings last year. It came at the cost of a 6.11 September ERA. This season, however, he has given the Red Sox quality outings despite showing signs of fatigue. Per Brooks Baseball, his average velocity has dipped to 90.75 mph, deflating his 2017 average to 91.82.

    After Pomeranz tossed 6.1 scoreless frames in Tuesday's 1-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles, Red Sox manager John Farrell praised his starter for giving them a chance to win in extra innings despite his depreciated stuff.

    "I tell you what, he's come so far this season," Farrell said, per the Eagle-Tribune's Chris Mason. "He's healthy, and even on a night when maybe the innings are starting to show their wear and tear somewhat, he knows what he's got on a given night and pitches accordingly."

    Boston should pay close attention to his arm strength, but Pomeranz has earned premium positioning in its postseason rotation.

SP Chris Sale

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    Chris Sale reached 300 strikeouts during an eight-inning gem on Wednesday.
    Chris Sale reached 300 strikeouts during an eight-inning gem on Wednesday.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Let's not pretend Sale is a scrub because he had a few off days.

    That 4.02 ERA over his past 10 turns conveniently starts on Aug. 1, when he surrendered seven runs to Cleveland. The defending AL champion appears to have his number; he allowed seven more runs (six earned) when they met on Aug. 24.

    He has also kept the opposition off the scoreboard in three of his past five outings. On Wednesday night, he silenced the Baltimore Orioles over eight shutout frames and brought his 2017 strikeout tally to 300. The lefty joins Clayton Kershaw as the only hurler to reach the elusive milestone since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both exceeded 300 punchouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2002.

    Not having to face Cleveland in September, Sale has registered a 2.63 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 24 innings. Although he might lose the AL Cy Young Award to Corey Kluber, he has a strong case to join Price and Porcello as the third winner in Boston's rotation.

    Don't write him out of the MVP discussion, either. His 8.2 WAR on FanGraphs hovers over a full run above Jose Altuve's 7.1 for baseball's highest mark. While Baseball Reference's model distinguishes Kluber as the Cy Young front-runner and MVP contender, Sale still ranks fifth among all AL players.

    Boston will hope to avoid using Sale in the Wild Card Game, but he could possibly encounter Cleveland in the American League Division Series. Another poorly timed off day could make all the difference in October.

OF Mookie Betts

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    Mookie Betts snapped a month-plus home run drought.
    Mookie Betts snapped a month-plus home run drought.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Even in a down year, Mookie Betts remains Boston's bedrock. 

    Hitting .263/.343/.456 represents a monumental letdown from last year's MVP-caliber .318/.363/.534 slash line, but he's still an elite defensive outfielder and one of seven players with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. While he will fall short of last year's career-high 31 home runs, the 5'9" star is snapping out of his power funk.

    After going 30 games without hitting a homer, Betts has gone deep five times over Boston's past 12 games. That mini power surge essentially makes him Giancarlo Stanton on a team with MLB's fourth-fewest base-clearers.

    He toiled throughout July and August, with a sub-.700 OPS each month, so the Red Sox should be relieved to see September's .945 OPS. The streak coincides with a change in batting stance Betts developed with hitting coach Chili Davis, according to MassLive.com's Christopher Smith.

    "The bat speed has always been there," Farrell told Smith. "I think he's just putting himself in a better spot to square some pitches up. ... Just the fact that he's a little bit more upright, a little bit more relaxed, not charging out to get some pitches, it's certainly a key."

    Playing small ball won't beat the Yankees, Cleveland or Houston Astros in October, so the Red Sox need their star to stay hot in the postseason.

RP Craig Kimbrel

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    Kimbrel has not allowed a run in September.
    Kimbrel has not allowed a run in September.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

    The entire Red Sox bullpen deserves credit for the team's recent success. Their stellar work has allowed them to notch four extra-inning victories in September, most notably a 19-inning marathon in which they blanked the Toronto Blue Jays for 13 frames.

    No other relief corps has accumulated more strikeouts in September. While the group effort features virtuoso performances from Brandon Workman, Blaine Boyer, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Austin Maddox, Carson Smith and Addison Reed, Craig Kimbrel is the star attraction.

    The closer has yielded two hits and no runs over eight dominant September innings, during which he has also stockpiled 16 strikeouts. He leads MLB with an unfathomable 50.4 strikeout percentage.

    As noted by MLB.com's Zach Crizer, only once has a reliever struck out over half of his batters faced in at least 60 innings. Kimbrel did it 2012. Lower the minimum requirement to 50 innings, and Aroldis Chapman produced the all-time high percentage (52.5) in 2014.

    Kimbrel's 2012 strikeout spree earned him fifth place on the NL Cy Young Award ballot. Kluber or Sale will take home this year's AL honors, but the relief ace may snag another top-five finish if he finishes 2017 strong.

    He's also in store to make a seismic postseason impact, as long as the Red Sox avoid the 2013 Atlanta Braves' mistake of preserving him for a save situation that may never materialize.

                  

    All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.